There’s a true and poignant story of a lost masterpiece discovered amidst the clutter in an eccentric man’s estate. Ernest Onians had spent most of the 1940s and ‘50s rummaging through estate sales across the English countryside, amassing a vast collection.
Over the years, his personality evolved from passionate collector to paranoid hoarder. First, he filled his farm to the brim with stuff, and then proceeded to build shacks to store his “finds” – artifacts, art work and antiquities. In his later years, Onians wouldn’t allow anyone to see (or even insure) his “collection.” Instead, he devised his own makeshift alarm system, and slept with a loaded gun under his bed.
After Onians’ passing, his family, uninterested in dealing with the deceased man’s estate, handed it off to Sotheby’s to liquidate. Art collectors received a catalogue of an upcoming auction, which included pictures of some of the things Sotheby’s found in the late Onians’ eclectic collection.
Among those collectors was the great art historian and dealer, Sr. Denis Mahon. A picture the size of a stamp caught his attention. It was listed with the title, “The Sack of Carthage,” painted by relatively unknown 17th century artist, Pietro Testa, and estimated to sell for 15,000 British pounds.
Upon close inspection, Sr. Denis saw an incongruous detail on the tiny image, a seven- branched menorah. He immediately knew that this piece could not possibly be depicting the sack of Carthage. It must be the destruction of the Jews’ Second Temple by the Romans!
During the 1600s, the great 17th century artist Nicholas Poussin had painted two portraits of the destruction of the Second Temple. One sat in the Museum of Vienna. The second had been lost since the 18th century. Incredulously, Sr. Denis realized that, unbeknownst to Sotheby’s, he was looking at the long lost Poussin! He bid for the picture at the auction.
Upon seeing the eminent Sir Denis bidding, others realized that he must know something they didn’t, and also placed their bids. Eventually, Sir Denis bought the painting for 155,000 British pounds. A few years later, he sold it to Lord Rothschild for its true worth, 4.5 million pounds!
Lord Rothschild, in turn, donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it hangs today. Ironically, some of Onians’ family members later sued Sotheby’s for negligence, having undervalued their family’s hidden treasure!
I share this story now, as we approach Shavuot, the holiday of the giving (and receiving) of our Torah. This was the historic moment when we forged our Jewish identity with a commitment to G-d, made in love, and that we’ve kept (and has kept us) through the years through love.
I share this story at a time when our Jewish identity is being pointed at with disdain, hate and animosity; sometimes with fingers, more recently with rockets and guns. I share this story as we end school years, approach our children’s and grandchildren’s college graduations, and watch the younger generation transition into the future.
I share this story because it is precisely at these moments that we need to ask ourselves, “Is my Judaism like the story of Mr. Onians’ penchant for paintings – a collection of antiquated stuff that I hoard for myself?” “Is it something my parents or grandparents valued, but is really of no meaning, or value to me?” “Am I, or my children, to be like Onians’ children, willing to let go of my Judaism, unaware that it is a legacy of immense value?” “Will our children blame us, or ultimately pity us, for not teaching them to appreciate the value of the great treasure to which they were bequeathed?”
The story of the ‘lost’ masterpiece teaches us that if we want to be in a position to recognize, appreciate and benefit from a hidden treasure, we need to be well-educated about it. Perhaps, now is the time to take a closer look at our rich tradition, to plumb its meaning in-depth, and re-discover the worth of our inheritance – our invaluable hidden treasure – the Torah.
This Article first appeared in my column for The Jewish Herald Voice, May 16, 2019